Reality-Based Gastronomic Opinions
New York City Wine & Food Festival
West Side Highway and 15th Street (Pier 57)
New York, NY 10011
Neighborhood: Meatpacking District
Date: October 2, 2011
The fourth annual Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival presented by Food & Wine took place September 29 - October 2, 2011, with 100% of proceeds going to charity. It was originally the brainchild of Lee Brian Schrager, from ubiquitous booze distributor Southern Wine & Spirits. The festival itself consists of hundred of panels, forums, and tasting events spread out around the city. The events ranged from the niche (pickling seminars, discussions about glassware’s impact on wine) to the more accessible (cake decorating, sushi basics).
Undoubtedly, the event with the broadest appeal was the Grand Tasting ($195 day pass), held on October 1 and 2 from 11:00am-5:00pm. Essentially, this event consisted of the massive Pier 57 building being covered end to end with booths manned by national and local food brands, NYC restaurants, wine makers, distillers, brewers, cheese makers, chocolatiers, and bakers – all passing you product across their counters for your degustetory pleasure.
As you can imagine, the biggest challenge was keeping the momentum and moving along to other tasting experiences without overindulging in any one thing, especially the wines and spirits (hiccup). Surprisingly, the event seemed to be populated by knowledgeable – or at least inquisitive - attendees who actually came for tasting and learning… instead of pigging out and getting wasted (like the somewhat sub-par Newport Food and Wine Festival earlier this summer). Bringing more legit-ness, NYC Food Fest’s booths were manned by people who actually knew all about the products they were serving you. The beer was poured by the brewer. The wine was decanted by the wine maker. The boeuf bourgignon was ladled by the chef. The beef jerky was served by the – uh - jerker. This made for excellent conversation with people who know a hell of a lot more about food and wine than you do. Real-life Food Network, interactive style.
And you have to love a business model where everyone wins. The consumer tastes an expansive range of excellent food and booze. The exhibitors get to pimp out their wares to a potentially new audience and demographic. And the organizers collect bank from everyone. Brilliant.
Let’s get to some specifics.
NYC tapas mainstay Boqueria was one of the first draws walking into the venue. The eatery, now rocking a second location in Soho, was pushing olive oil and shallot crisps. The olive oil had a beautiful zing, but the shallots were limp and the crisp was too soaked through, lacking enough crisposity.
Delta Airlines was present, with an elaborate booth manned by uniformed flight attendants (real ones) pouring the new wine offerings that are upcoming in their business-class service. Clever idea, but everyone knows that airlines only serve swill, right? Well, that reputation isn’t completely founded on myth. The St. Exupery sauvignon blanc was dry but too acidic and citrusy to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Mountain Vineyard’s “Antu” cab sauv and carmenere meritage had lots of chalk on the finish and really didn’t do the trick down here on terra firma. The mild cherry notes on the finish did put it above the standard airline pour, though. Can the rest of us derps get some of that back here in economy?
Event co-organizer Food Network debuted their Entwine line of wines, a collaboration with California’s Wente Vineyards, along with small morsel pairings. The cab sauv was all cherry and married well with the carrot salad and bresaeola crisps. The merlot was a bit watery and missed the mark on having any real substance or a satisfactory finish. The pinot grigio, accurately paired with mini chicken mango tostadas, was served too cold and had a strange citrus overload (Mike N’ Ike) on the back end… and a watery build up on the front end that failed to deliver completely. Times, they are a-changin’, when the consumer wine market tolerates a wine label branded with a TV channel logo. But that’s not to say that market evolution is necessarily a bad thing. For its price point and target segment, this product was actually pretty good overall - despite initially coming off like a marketing gambit.
California wine behemoth Ravenswood had a huge presence with a large, ornate wooden booth complete with a loungey area in front of the bar. Their trademark zinfandel was somewhat commercial but did have a fantastically full mouthfeel without bursting on the palate.
Bell Book & Candle was a true find. The Manhattan restaurant actually grows their own local and sustainable produce on the roof of their building. Melon, squash, okra, tomatillo, heirloom tomatoes, you name it. The 2400 square foot roof grows more than what a traditional acre can churn out – due to aeroponics, a closed gravitational irrigation system, and recycled water that filters through the crops over and over. Chef/owner John Mooney took great pleasure in describing it in detail, a technology he apparently acquired from Disney.
Moonshine Whiskey was in the house with what they touted as “the vodka drinker’s whiskey” – a gluten-free 100% corn-based spirit that was crystal clear in color (no aging). Their claim was true. This spirit could be mixed with any kind of mixer that a vodka would work with, and produce a solid cocktail – it was devoid of the peatey tastes that normally populate a traditional whiskey’s palate. This whiskey is the child of the same parent company and the omnipresent Yellowtail range of mid-market wines, as well as the owners of Hamptons Magazine.
Jean-George’s Meatpacking District landmark Spice Market was here, firing out a delicious shaved tuna with chili tapioca, Asian pear, and lime. It was served cold and was vaguely lime-ey in a Thai sort of way, but the coconut milk put it firmly in Thailand, just short of a curry. Well done, JG.
Upstate NY wine maker Konstantin Frank has been doing well with their local riesling for many years, but chose this weekend to focus on their rkatsiteli, a Georgian grape that goes back to Mount Ararat and is considered to be one of the oldest varietals in the world. The white wine delivered just the right balance between acidity and lemony citrus fruits with a bit of grapefruit, with that Finger Lakes minerality that locavores have come to know and love.
Midtown’s Benjamin Steakhouse was grilling a dry aged porterhouse that was high grade but overcooked. The highlight, however, was the creamed spinach that contained no cream - it was made instead with roux that gave it a thick consistency and provided a robust vehicle for the spinach, without that heavy creamy feel. Nice one.
Slantshack Jerky started with some college buddies in their apartment in Jersey City. Once the FDA caught on, they were forced to find legit digs in Manhattan. They boys decided that jerky didn’t have to be preservative-laden chemically flavored leather that you find at the truck stop. Why not broaden the jerky market, right? So, they found a grass-fed beef farm in Orlean, VA and began producing a “healthier, high protein alternative to chips”. This is an artisanal jerky, if those two words could ever be used in the same sentence, and they are gaining traction at Chelsea Market and local bars and tea shops, as well as niche retail in Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Go jerketeers!
Overall, the festival delivered well on its intentions and measured up to its steep price point. Despite some gruff service by the venue staff, the vibe was good and the exhibitors were friendly and happy to be talking to you. Nobody left the Grand Tasting without learning something, and everyone got plenty to eat and drink. This event is recommended for next year.
Written by Eric Reithler-Barros